45 Years Ago: Paul McCartney Finds Hope Amid Second Wings Split
It's no surprise that Wings' synthy hit single "With a Little Luck" has a yacht-rock vibe or that Paul McCartney's group feels suddenly airy and wide open.
After all, Wings was recording on a boat – and guitarist Jimmy McCulloch was exiting the lineup. Drummer Joe English would soon follow him out, leaving Wings to complete 1978's London Town with the same core trio that fashioned their signature Band on the Run album.
This time, however, Wings had a far different, more stripped-down musical approach. "It just comes in phases," McCartney said in a 1978 promo interview with Capitol Records. "At one moment, you're listening to some records that are really produced and you think, 'Yeah, I want to do that kind of thing.' At another moment, you're listening to something that's very simple and you think, 'I really like very simple music.'"
Inner turmoil might have informed the lyric on "With a Little Luck," which found McCartney singing hope-filled words of encouragement ("The willow turns his back on inclement weather, and if he can do it, we can do it") in a voice that nearly breaks with emotion. Still, the song was guided by a centered musical placidity very much in keeping with their surroundings.
"It got us out of gray old London," McCartney added. "It felt really good on the boat. It can't feel bad, though. You get a take and you just leap over the side to celebrate with all of the blue water – and the sharks."
Sessions for London Town had begun in February 1977 at Abbey Road, and Wings completed five songs by March. The plan was to break for a short tour, but then McCartney's wife Linda learned she was pregnant with their only son. McCartney decided to bring Wings back to the studio – but this time in a much sunnier environment: aboard the Fair Carol, which was docked off the Virgin Islands with a 24-track onboard studio. Linda and Paul would take a skiff over from a second boat in Watermelon Bay, while the rest of Wings slept in another vessel.
"We're sitting in the studio in London, and it was raining – doing its usual thing at the beginning of February in London," McCartney told Capitol Records. "I was sitting in that little studio with no air or anything, and we're about to do an album. The engineer we were working with, Geoff Emerick, came back and he had done an album in Hawaii with America – The Harbor album they did. Everyone got jealous."
Recording at sea was something "everybody had been thinking about for a long time," McCartney added. "So we had a month on holiday, and in the evenings instead of going to the local hotel and having dinner like you sometimes do on holiday, we would just go to the studio and spend time doing that. So it was like combining a holiday with that."
Listen to Paul McCartney and Wings' 'With a Little Luck'
There was a slightly painful sunburn or two, and a few small seafaring-related injuries, but the early days echoed with a familiar camaraderie. Discussions were even held about calling the project Water Wings. "I turned Paul and Linda on to boats," Wings stalwart Denny Laine told The Plain Dealer in 2019. "I had this big wooden boat and they gave me this plaque that said, 'A boat is a hole in the water surrounded by wood that one continually pours money into.'"
In some ways, Wings would become the same thing for McCartney. The mood eventually darkened aboard the Fair Carol, and the group's second lineup began to splinter. "There were some trying times," assistant engineer Tom Anderson told The Plain Dealer in 2016. "You've got some serious emotions working on a 100-foot yacht, and that's as far as you can go. You've got nowhere else to go. I won't say tempers flared, but it wasn't all beautiful."
Recording halted late in Linda's pregnancy. McCulloch left to join the reformed Small Faces as little James Louis McCartney arrived in September, then English announced that he'd become homesick. By September 1979, the hard-living guitarist was dead.
Laine and the McCartneys returned to AIR Studios to add the final touches to London Town, then released "With a Little Luck" on March 20, 1978 – almost a year after they'd started it. The original arrangement, constructed with a bank of keyboards likely inspired by Stevie Wonder's contemporary work, remained intact. "This is a song we started on the boat in Watermelon Bay," McCartney confirmed in 2002's The Dream Is Over: Off the Record 2. "We just had the backing track, a very rough version."
English remained on the finished single and also on several album tracks with McCulloch, but the LP cover showed only the trio from Band on the Run. "With a Little Luck" shot to No. 1 in the U.S. and went Top 20 in more than half a dozen other countries. Wings broke a spell in America, where Barry Gibb had been holding sway all year: Songs he wrote or produced had settled into the No. 1 spot for 16 of 19 weeks up to that point in 1978, most recently with Yvonne Elliman's "If I Can't Have You."
Two other London Town singles followed, "I've Had Enough" and the title track. Both became U.K. Top 40 hits, but were largely ignored by U.S. listeners. McCartney had already moved on, assembling a third lineup of Wings that would also include Laurence Juber and Steve Holly. (Holly appeared in the promotional video for "With a Little Luck," miming English's parts.)
Released when Wings wasn't touring, "With a Little Luck" somehow never appeared on a McCartney set list. They released Back to the Egg in 1979, following a series of sessions that were notably held on dry land. Years later, Anderson would share some friendly advice for Laine: "Stay out of Sunfish skiffs under bright blue Caribbean skies – and invest in aloe."
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